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Myth in Non-Fiction Films

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At first glance, Gladiator might appear as simply a bloody, action-packed, revenge story... which in many ways it is, however the movie takes on deeper meaning for the fictional characters at hand. From the onset of the film, Maximus, our main character, is already a heroic figure, revered amongst his soldiers as an honorable, worthy leader, delivering powerful messages like this one...

Gladiator Speeches

The current emperor chooses Maximus over his own son to take his seat, picking Maximus for his honorable ways both on and off the battlefield. Maximus would like to please the emperor, and knows he is capable of the task at hand (unifying the Roman Empire), as he is respected by politicians and common citizens alike. However his true desire is to return to his family. The emperor's son kills the emperor when he hears of his father's plans, orders the execution of Maximus, and kills Maximus' wife and child, thus setting in motion the basic good vs. evil dynamic between himself and Maximus.

Maximus experiences a figurative cycle of death and rebirth, transforming from a general, to a slave, to a gladiator, and finally to a hero of the community, who defies the evil emperor, bringing power to the people of Rome.

Although it was never Maximus' aim to be a hero, he was the ultimate teacher by example. His cause may have been spurred on by the drive for revenge, but it ultimately took on a duel purpose as both the opportunity to avenge his family and carry out the original wish of the dying emperor. Through his trials and ultimate death, Maximus carried out his heroic cause, and as reward was united with his family in the afterlife.

It could certainly be imagined that such a story as that in Gladiator, if it had actually occurred, would have created the basis for a myth that would have lasted for many generations. Politicians respected him, soldiers revered him, men cheered his every move, children would have emulated him in make believe battles, and to top it off, the ladies loved him. He had a transcendent charisma that is so often seen or historically described in those individuals who are considered great.

From a religious standpoint these are the moral paragons who preach, teach, or demonstrate some better way of living. Jesus did it with miracles. Maximus did it with a sword. I'm certainly not drawing a direct comparison between the two, but for the sake of exemplifying myth in Gladiator I would point out the following over-simplified parallels: Both were initially publicly maligned (the crowds at the Coliseum wished death upon Max). Both had a small following who knew and supported them (the fellow gladiators in Max's case). Both gained support of the people and ire of the government. Finally, both died for the people and were united with their "families".

A hero died, a myth was born.

Gandhi